Black documentary maker's retelling of how establishment 'truth' is maintained
Posted by marknadim on September 11, 2021, 8:17 am
from fb by Ishmahil Blagrove |
It was 2003 and I was working for Dispatches C4 on a programme called Gang Wars. I was told that in order to get my own commissions I had to partner up with other more established production companies, hence, Rice N Peas were to receive a credit on Gang Wars as a co-production. Lynn Ferguson and her company First Frame TV were to produce the programme and I was to report under Rice N Peas. Janey Ayoade was the Assistant Producer and Seyi Rhodes was on research. This was to be a 12-week production travelling across Britain to highlight the problem of youth gangs and violence.
Almost ten weeks into the production and I had yet to speak to one white gang member or individual. Every individual or gang member that I had spoken to was Black. This sent alarm bells ringing and I raised it with Lynn Ferguson and the others in the production team. I was categorically told that there were no white gangs and that this was fundamentally a Black problem. Lynn Ferguson, a white middle-class woman, who had made many Dispatches productions, had the perverse obsession in her head that the gang problem was fundamentally about youths of Caribbean origin murdering youths of African origin. We argued back and forth about elements of the Black community that she had no idea about. I felt alone in this battle to convince her of what the real issues were. The other two Black members of the production team kept their heads down and didn’t interviene - they would wish themselves away somewhere in their heads and feign ignorance. They remained silent spectators in the back and forth tussle between myself and Lynn, becoming mime artists without the ability of speech. Fearful that my rebellion would have repercussions for themselves and all the other negroes on the plantation.
When I arrived on the production set of the next interview and discovered that it was yet another young Black male, I flipped out. I told them that was it, no more. I was not going to put my face to this blatant stitch up job to assassinate the character of young Black males. I told Lynn Ferguson that just because I had braids in my hair and a gold tooth, that I was not going to be a model for Channel 4; that I was a reporter and journalist on the story. I knew Dispatches wanted a Black face to present this programme because the other two prospective candidates for the job, before I was selected, were also Black. I refused to do any more filming until white gang members were found to balance out the story. The focus for the researchers was now to find white gang members – and they eventually did. I interviewed a gang of mixed black and white members called WNK from around the Kingston area of London and also interviewed a white gang from Derby. Lynn finally got the idea of the balanced picture I was trying to present, but the die was already cast. I had carried my baggage over from the BBC and was yet again in another situation where I was being labelled as ‘hard to manage’ and ‘difficult to deal with’.
On another occasion, I had used my contacts to set up an interview with some members of the Burger Boys gang from Birmingham. I instructed Lynn Ferguson that I would need a Black cameraman for the job. Again, I was seen as making demands and being difficult. She couldn’t understand why the cameraman had to be Black. I told her to think of it as the same reason why for them, the reporter of the programme had to be black. It became quite a challenge for Channel 4 to locate a Black cameraman, but they eventually did. She then demanded to meet some of the gang members. I pleaded with her to leave it to me and to just allow me to get the interview in the bag. She said, “Ishmahil, I’ve filmed with the IRA and I am an award-winning producer, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah…” My protests fell on deaf ears. We ended up in a car on the M1 motorway driving to meet the Burger Boys. She regaled me with tales of all the wonderful documentaries that she had made, all the way from the start of the M1 at Edgware Road, to the Bull Ring Shopping Centre in Birmingham. I was still pleading with her hoping that she’d have a change of heart and see reason. We met up with the gang at a venue organised by a friend of mine. To be fair, the meeting went very well. In fact, it went better than I had anticipated. The gang members were extremely cordial and pleasant. They listened to Lynn re-pitch the story and what we were trying to achieve. All in all, it appeared to be a very successful meeting. As we drove back to London, Lynn Ferguson was very pleased with herself. “You see Ishmahil, that wasn’t so bad. I think they liked me. I’ve got a lot of experience in dealing with….” The phone rang. I answered it. It was one of the gang members. He simply said, “Ishmahil, noh badda cum back again!” That was that, they had pulled out of the interview. Black criminals of any level are always suspicious of white people, whether you are a journalist or not, there is always the possibility that you are the police.
I had been pitching the idea to do a story that focused primarily on the problem of so-called Black-on-Black violence, examining some of the possible root causes. I had originally pitched the idea to Marcus Ryder around 1999 when he was rising through the ranks of the BBC and was still grazing on Black stories to establish himself. He had initially expressed an interest and then one day he suddenly just vanished. He no longer returned my calls and went about his business pursuing his BBC career. I had always mulled over the idea of doing such a production and had pitched it to Lynn Ferguson. She said I should bring the idea to Kevin Sutcliffe who was the commissioning editor of C4 Dispatches. I did just that and took him through the idea and the story and what I hoped it would achieve. His exact words to me were, “Middle England would not be interested in such a story.”
The ‘Gang Wars’ production ended and I was relieved to finally be divorced from Lynn Ferguson. She is one of those annoying white-liberal do-gooders, that has a saviour complex and thinks because she likes jerk chicken and listens to Bob Marley, that she has an advanced understanding of Black culture.
Gang Wars was eventually broadcast and received very favourable reviews. It was the story that began to make the nation take heed of the growing problem of gang violence in Britain. I did a couple of interviews here and there to promote the programme and to spark debate within the society.
Several months after Gang Wars aired, I saw an advert for a Dispatches programme that caught my attention. It was to be an investigation into Black-on-Black violence in Britain called ‘Thug Life’. I made sure to tune in. It was produced by First Frame TV and presented by Geoff Schuman – who I am sure had no idea that I had written the original pitch. The programme began with virtually the opening words of the treatment that I had presented to Lynn Ferguson and Kevin Sutcliffe, “An investigation into the disproportionate level of violence amongst young black males…” Janey Ayoade and Seyi Rhodes from the Gang Wars production team were also members of this production. Not one of them had informed me that my programme was being made.
I was fuming. I was disgusted. I was disturbed. Within weeks I set in motion to use my own resources and funds to make the programme that I had pitched to Dispatches and Lynn Ferguson. “#### THEM!” I intended to make that story and through my connection to the streets, I intended to tell a raw story that had never before been told. This was not going to be a documentary where the highpoint of the story would be some silhouetted youth sitting on the steps of some broken down housing estate talking about, “I’M A BAD MAN YU KNOW. I BORE UP NUFF MAN!” I know the streets. I know the rawest elements of the streets. This was going to be the real deal. I organised my production team and immediately set to work. The result was “Bang Bang In Da Manor”, a documentary that was subsequently described by Chief Superintendent John Coles from Operation Trident, as ‘the most interesting and brilliant documentary that he had ever seen made about gun-crime in Britain’. We brought viewers for the first time into an active crack house, we filmed drug dealers preparing heroin and cocaine ready for the streets, we filmed an arms dealer displaying the guns that he sells, we covered the funeral of Toni-Ann Byfield and her father Anthony Byfield who were murdered in their home in Kensal Green, and we spoke to the young perpetrators who committed these crimes. The documentary was an underground success. So much so, that it was screened at City Hall to a cross party of politicians and media figures. We challenged the narrative of the term “Black-on-Black” and “Yardie” and as a result the media recalibrated its lens and stopped using those terms. They rebranded it as “Youth violence”, thus shifting public attention on to youths and through lazy journalism demonising and criminalising them in general.
Bang Bang In Da Manor was such a success that we were booked out to screen the documentary at independent cinemas and venues right across the country. We gave talks at scores of community centres and schools. We couldn’t print the DVDs that we sold fast enough. The media caught wind of the popularity of the documentary and the BBC eventually purchased it and screened it on BBC 4.
Our offices were receiving calls from across the country from people telling us that they had purchased copies here and there and that the quality was poor. I was surprised. Someone called and said they purchased the DVD from a hair dressers in Leeds. I told them that we do not have any distribution in Leeds.
One day I was in Scandal’s, a West Indian food shop in Harlesden, when a shifty looking Chinese gentleman opened a bag and laid out a load of pirate DVDs on the counter. Amongst the X-Men, Harry Potter and the host of other Hollywood blockbusters sat Bang Bang In Da Manor. The man began to try and sell me my own movie, “This very good!” I told him that I had made the documentary. He was a little confused. I had to take my time in explaining to him that I was the one who had made the documentary and that he was selling extremely poor quality copies. I arranged for him to collect a master copy so that he could make better reproductions and ensure that the quality control of our videos was maintained. I was truly honoured that our film was good enough to be pirated and was making the rounds amongst the illegal Chinese video sellers.
I immediately put up a notice on our website. “It has come to our attention that Bang Bang In Da Manor has been pirated. Whilst the pirates have to eat too, if you want the best quality copy, please purchase direct from Rice N Peas.” Bang Bang In Da Manor set the benchmark in that genre of documentary. That type of access has not been replicated since. Ross Kemp and his faux hard man persona was then to shortly pop up in the mainstream media presenting stories about gangs in Britain.
The next time I saw Seyi Rhodes was 14 years later, during the Grenfell tragedy. He was still involved in media, was still working for Channel 4 and had risen through the ranks. He had been sent to interview me. I reminded him of our time at Dispatches with Lynn Ferguson and how I had been hung out to dry. That neither he nor Janey Ayoade had intervened to support me in correcting the false and damaging assumptions Lynn held about Black people. Seyi was visibly embarrassed and ashamed. He apologised and explained that he was young, and that at the time he had only recently got his big break into current affairs. He said he had just wanted to keep his head down but knew now that he should have spoken up. I forgave him. I understood.
Seyi and Janey were the two other Black members of the production team. They had kept their heads down and went on to have regular work and a reasonably successful careers in the mainstream media. When you step out of line, rock the boat, and raise your head above the parapet - it comes at a price.